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Charles County Public Schools will introduce a new language arts curriculum this year, with one component targeting middle and high school students who are reading at least three levels below their grade.

Supplemental language arts, the unofficial name, according to Amy Hollstein, assistant superintendent of instruction, will be introduced to sixth- and ninth-graders this school year and is designed to assist those who have fallen behind so drastically in their reading skills that they need extra assistance outside of the typical intervention programs.

Sixth- and ninth-graders will not only be taught to understand the curriculum books and other texts at their skill level but also the actual practice of learning to read, dubbed “guided reading.”

Sixth-graders relegated to supplemental language arts still will enroll in an average course, which will contain both supplemental language arts students and those reading at an appropriate level.

For half the class, a teacher will facilitate the supplemental language students in guided reading strategies, the building blocks of reading taught in elementary school that for some reason did not stick, Hollstein said.

Those middle-schoolers up to par on reading and comprehension skills will be split from the supplemental language arts group and monitored by either another teacher or instructional assistant. The other half of the class will be taught with the students as a complete group.

Considering that the school system eliminated nearly all temporary and part-time positions due to a budget deficit, finding the manpower to monitor the language arts classes has required administration to “get creative,” Holstein said. The savings from the cut amounted to $1 million.

Ninth-graders will enroll in a separate language arts course and be taught many of the same skills as the sixth-graders, as needed.

“This is one of the top priorities of the school system, to have everyone reading on grade level,” Hollstein said. “Because if you read you can do just about anything, and if they can’t, it will impact their entire academic career.”

Placement in the sixth-grade course section will be determined by a Running Record assessment — an individualized, one-on-one test conducted throughout a student’s elementary school years, typically around report card time.

A child will be asked to read a passage and answer questions that become trickier to determine their reading skill level. The questions on the passage begin simple, more literal, and graduate to comprehension questions, Hollstein said.

“Many can read the words. That’s not the problem,” she said. “The problem is that they don’t understand what they read, the comprehension component.”

In ninth grade, the school system will seek input from teachers and past scores on reading tests to determine if the supplemental class is appropriate for a student.

About 100 sixth-graders countywide are slated to take supplemental reading — ninth-graders have yet to solidify their schedules, and that enrollment number is not yet available, Hollstein said.

Students struggle with reading for a number of reasons, like they came from an out-of-state education system, Hollstein said. Or, in first grade, when students generally begin learning the basics, they might take a little more time to understand. If they continue to fall behind each year that might result in a significant skill deficit, she said.

John Tompkins, content specialist for middle school reading and language arts, said he will, for the first two or three weeks of school, visit middle school classrooms to observe “the framework” of the classes.

Teachers underwent a three-day professional development seminar in July to learn the strategies of guided reading, Tompkins said.

A sample 20-minute lesson for sixth-graders might involve a child being quickly introduced to a book, preselected by the teacher, followed by 10 minutes of reading, either silent or whisper reading with a teacher, and then a five-minute discussion.

The teacher will then re-evaluate the needs and skill level of the students and select a new book — the students also will try novels and read them chapter by chapter.

“From there, it’s always about assessing behavior, and … the next book choice, where am I going to push these students?” he said.

jbauer-wolf@somdnews.com